The Obama Administration Values Human Life More Than the Bush Administration Did

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Provocative headline! But we're not talking about abortion, health care, the death penalty, war, or any of the other issues that partisans have traditionally pointed to as a sign that so-and-so doesn't value human life as much as another so-and-so. We're talking about the actual dollar value that the government places on a single human life. While such a calculation seems highly subjective and pretty much impossible — Is the guy who wipes his snot on the walls of the subway train worth the same as Minka Kelly? Is a blogger who comments on the news for a living worth the same as someone who actually betters the world in some way? Also, the whole thing about the soul, and all that — federal agencies use this value to help them determine the utilitarian wisdom of their regulatory policies. And pretty much every agency has raised its valuation of a human life since the Obama administration has taken office, according to the Times:


The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million last year in proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. The agency used numbers as low as $6.8 million during the George W. Bush administration.

The Food and Drug Administration declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2008, in proposing warning labels on cigarette packages featuring images of cancer victims.

The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.

Business leaders suspect that the noticeable climb in a human life's value, as determined by the Obama bureaucracy, has been "driven by the administration’s pursuit of its regulatory agenda rather than scientific considerations." That may be true! Or it may not. There are various methods for measuring the worth of a human life, but it's really just a big crapshoot.

The E.P.A. and the Transportation Department use numbers that are $3 million apart. The process generally involves experts, but the decisions ultimately are made by political appointees.

The Office of Management and Budget told agencies in 2004 that they should pick a number between $1 million and $10 million. That guidance remains in effect, although the office has more recently warned agencies that it would be difficult to justify the use of numbers under $5 million, two administration officials said.

Oh, we're pretty sure we could justify a number under $5 million for a lot of people (we refer you once again to Subway Snot Man).

As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret [NYT]